Monday, March 29, 2010

The strange life and mysterious death of Margo, Aussie 'queen of the Tiger Leaping Gorge'

I never met Margo Carter, or at least I don't think I did. She took up residence in the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the mid 1990s, whereas my one and only visit to this scenic wonder of the world was in 1994, presumably before she arrived. I am glad I visited when I did, before the road was put through and it became a must-do feature in the Lonely Planet guidebook for China.
From what I gather, Margo was a bit of an eccentric character, who hailed from Bendigo in Victoria and who had worked in market research and as a teacher in Sydney before travelling in China. She obviously was drawn to the scenic splendour of the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the charms of the local area, because she settled down to live there, and set up home with a local ethnic Tibetan guy, Sean, aka Xia Shan Quan, in 1996.
Sean had already set up one of the pioneering guesthouses in the gorge, at Walnut Grove, and was considered to be a pro-environmental kind of guy. His main guesthouse competitor, 'Woody', seemed to be more of an entrepreneur.
Margo did what I and I guess many other people have often dreamed of - dropping out and opting to live in a place far removed from civilisation in a remote part of Yunnan. No roads (at least to start with), no shops, no TV and little electricity. Not even a flushing toilet.
In reality, it can hardly have been a quiet life. With a steady flow of western backpackers traipsing through the gorge, Margo must have been busy trying to encourage them to stay at the guesthouse she ran at the entrance and at Sean's at Walnut Grove.
Reports from traveller's blogs and the various online travel forums suggest she was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character. Some describe her as a wonderful host, welcoming and very helpful, going out of her way to guide people along the gorge and help them avoid being ripped off by some of the more dodgy operators along the way. Other accounts describe her in varying degrees as aggressive and abrasive or just 'crazy', while some vistors found her withdrawn and dismissive. I guess it can be hard trying to put on a welcoming face to show to the world as it tramps through your home every day, but even so, it sounds like Margo was sometimes exhibiting a TLG version of 'cabin fever'.
She married Sean, and his website says he has three daughters, though I can't imagine what it would be like for a westerner rearing children in such basic conditions. Apparently Margo later split up with Sean, and some reports say Sean went to the US for a while, and yet recently they appear to have been back in business together, running their guesthouses and guided treks in the gorge.

Living in the Tiger Leaping Gorge for the last 15 years, Margo must have witnessed some profound changes and experienced a lot of dramas in her time. What started off as a single precarious mule trail through the gorge explored by a trickle of adventurous backpackers was gradually but relentlessly transformed in the 1990s. Dynamite blasting created a 'scenic highway' through the gorge that carried convoys of tour buses full of Chinese day trippers, down from the tourist boomtown of Lijiang. There were still plenty of western backpackers doing the 'higher' footpath trail, however, and Margo must have dealt with a fair few of the reported incidents of westerners injuring themselves or being killed by falls in the gorge, or being attacked or in some cases just disappearing along the track and being searched for by fraught relatives.
Margo featured in many a travelogue and TV show, was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. Like the eccentric Dr Ho running his herbal tea clinic outside Lijiang, Margo became one of the local characters. She was also frequently interviewed by western journalists about the likely future of the gorge after it was rumoured that it would be the site of a massive dam to tap the hydro potential of the Yangtze at one of its narrowest points.
Was she happy there? Well, aside from the reports of her occasionally cranky character, one of the last journalists to have interviewed her in recent times (a reporter from the Financial Times re-visiting the gorge to see how it had changed) reported that she seemed disillusioned by all the development and commercial exploitation going on in the gorge. It must be heartbreaking to settle in such a beautiful wilderness and see it slowly transformed into an overdeveloped tourist trap.

A few weeks ago I heard from a friend who lives in Yunnan that Margo had died. No details. I was vaguely curious, but thought little more about it as I was so busy with work and family matters.
Then in recent weeks, as I was planning to do another trek in South West China, I came across the bizarre details of what apparently happened to Margo, and how she died while doing a solo trek far away from the gorge, around the holy mountain of Kawa Karpo (Meili Xueshan) in the Deqin region of far north west Yunnan. I had been considering doing this 'big' kora (circuit) trek myself, but gave up on the idea after reading a few accounts of how strenuous it was - a full-on, 10-day trek from the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) over the high mountain pass of the Doker-La to the Salween (Nujiang) and back over a more northerly pass, the Shu-La, again to return to the Mekong. (This is the Joseph Rock connection - his account of an extended trip along this route appears in his article 'Through the Great River Trenches of Asia' in the August 1926 issue of National Geographic).
I'd already done some sections of this trek, and found them tough, and I passed on the idea, partly because I lacked the time, but also because I considered the scenery not perhaps as good 'value for money' as that to be experienced in the Yading area, although it certainly is spectacular.
I got much of my information from a website set up by a Yunnan-based British trekking guide called Richard Scotford, who used to run a trekkers lodge in Deqin. In an article Death on The Kora, Richard describes a strange encounter he had with Margo while he was leading a group of trekkers over the Doker-La pass on the first leg of the Kawa Karpo kora in October 2009.

His group were surprised - to say the least - to be passed by a lone western woman traveling at speed (alone, that is, except for her dog and a local guide with a horse, left trailing well to the rear) and they noted that she was only lightly clad for the trail. Not only that, but they were taken aback by how rude she was to the trekking group, refusing to talk with them at all during their brief encounter on the trail.
Things got stranger later in the day when they saw her again and she chose to camp alongside them, but again was uncommunicative. That was until she started saying that she would 'turn them in' to the local authorities and warning them that they would be turned back at local police checkpoints further up the Salween (Nujiang) valley and the local Tibetans would shun them. The group were un-nerved by her unfriendly and bizarre behaviour (she would only talk to them in Chinese at one point) and her apparent threats.
Margo left early the next day and they never saw her again. In fact, they were some of the last people to see her alive. Richard is an experienced trekker in the region and he thought the claims that Margo made to them about the authorities were implausible and hard to believe. He was proved right. There were no roadblocks, and after some cautious checking, his group continued on uneventfully into the Salween valley, where the local Tibetans were friendly and helpful, and soon the trekkers had put the memory of this odd encounter with the 'mad' western woman out of their minds.
However, a few days later when they came to do the strenuous return leg of their kora, back over the high passes to the Mekong valley in the east, they got a shock. After the exhausting climb up to the exposed Shu-La pass, they descended on the eastern side to find Margo's guide waiting at the first small settlement high up on the mountain. He was frantic and said he had not seen Margo for two days. She had gone missing at some point after leaving the guide behind when she hurried along in front to attempt the pass by herself.

The guide had assumed she had gone on ahead, and he summmitted the pass and continued on down in the expectation of catching up with her on the other side. By the time the trekking group arrived he had already been waiting for her for two days. Richard later came to believe that Margo had taking a wrong turning at the confusing terrain of the Shu-La pass, where with three valleys to choose from it would be an easy navigation error to make. This would have seen her descending into a wrong 'dead end' valley and ending up be-nighted high on the mountain with no shelter and no warm clothes, no food and no means to make a fire. He doubted anyone could survive two nights out in the frigid high alpine environment.
Not knowing where the strange western woman might be, the trekkers continued on down. Richard then goes on to explain some of the rumours they heard once they completed their trek. Some rumours coming out of the Tiger Leaping Gorge said that Margo had been murdered by a local trader after a deal to buy some of the expensive and highly-prized local medicinal mushrooms had gone sour. Richard rightly points out that this scenario seems improbable, given the remote and inconvenient location of her disappearance.

After an extensive search by local residents and police, Margo's body was eventually found several weeks later on a remote trail at a large tree near the Shuo-La pass. Her small dog was also with her and was still alive. It appears likely that she simply underestimated the harsh conditions of the trek and the difficulty of the terrain that she would encounter. As another very experienced Australian trekker, Clem Lindenmayer, had discovered a couple of years earlier on the Minya Konka kora in Sichuan, solo trekking in Kham can easily be fatal.
While Margo Carter was well known as a guide on the Tiger Leaping Gorge, the conditions on the Kawa Karpo kora are a whole world away and require a much higher level of trekking skills and experience.
So was Margo just an unfortunate victim of misplaced over-confidence on a tough alpine trek? If so, why was she so hostile to the western trekkers she encountered on the way? Richard also mentions that Margo was seen by some other westerners in Zhongdian shortly before she started her trek, and she had advised them to listen out for 'some big news' from the kora at the time of her trek. What does this mean? Did she intend to walk off into the wilderness and do an 'Into the Wild' or something dramatic?
Whatever the truth, it's a baffling and sad end for an eccentric character who 'lived out the dream' in one of the world's most remote and alluring locations.

UPDATE OCT 2014: I have just done the Shu-La pass and am more mystified than ever about the disappearance/death of Margo. The route is quite clear all the way to the pass, and it would be hard to get lost unless you purposely went "off piste". The trek over the pass is strenuous, but not impossibly so. It would even be possible to cross the pass in  'ordinary clothes' as many Tibetans do, weather permitting. I'm also puzzled by the claim that her body was found by "a large tree" near the pass. As you can see, there are no trees whatsover within about a mile of the pass. Perhaps they meant much further down. The approach to the pass from the Wichu valley is through a wooded gully and is very strenuous/tedious (see my blog about the crossing here). There are also trees much further down on the eastern Yunnan side of the pass, but there is also a shelter at the treeline.

Here's a pic of some mums and infants in light clothing, just after crossing the Shola Pass with me in October 2014.